Chris Fortney

Chris Fortney is currently enrolled in our Online MS program. He graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a BFA in 2014 concentrating in graphic design and painting. Fortney is currently the Project/Lab Manager for the Immersive Simulation Program (ISP) at the National Human Genome Research Institute where he develops custom virtual reality simulations for conducting experimental human trials. He takes the time to talk about his work at NHGRI, his interest in the cross section of technology, research, and design and why it is important to value and nourish your creative process.


Chris Fortney headshot
Photographer, The National Human Genome Research Institute

Information Systems: You are currently enrolled in the Online MS program. Can you talk a little bit about your experience thus far and why you chose UMBC?

Chris Fortney: I chose UMBC because I was looking for an excellent program that could help me expand my knowledge base and skillset, while also accommodating my busy full-time schedule as a lab manager. I’m interested in the cross section of technology, research, and design, and I think that the Online MS program at UMBC has provided me with new tools to enhance the multidisciplinary approach that I take in my work and career.

Information Systems: Was attending a fully online program important to you?

Chris Fortney: Yes, it was important to me that the program would be online. I had initially started at UMBC in Human-Centered Computing graduate program, but it was too difficult for me to make the commute to class throughout the week and I knew that I would need to switch to fully online.

Information Systems: You received your BFA from MICA in 2014. How did you make the transition from fine art into working with virtual reality in a medical and behavioral psychology research context?

Chris Fortney wearing a VR headset giving a demonstration

Chris Fortney: Well, I’ve always been interested in computer science and technology, but when I was young I wanted to pursue my passion for painting and fine art. After graduating from MICA, I began working as a graphic designer for an accreditation non-profit in Baltimore. I later took a position at NIH in their staff Research Library, again in graphic design. The library itself is full of multidisciplinary folks, and attracts researchers from all different institutions around NIH to attend classes and use library resources. One of those resources was a brand new HTC Vive that had yet to be opened; someone had ordered it in 2016 with plans to do something with it in the Technology Hub of the library. It felt like there was possibly something there as far as emerging technology services that the library could offer, but it was unexplored. I decided to get the VR equipment setup myself, and began giving demonstrations at the library and inviting developers from the DMV to share first looks at software developed for the Vive. As I got deeper into what tools I could make available to researchers at NIH using VR, I met Dr. Susan Persky, who has been working with virtual reality in a research context since the early 2000s. She proposed that I come on as the lab manager for the Immersive Simulation Program, where I’ve been working since 2018.

Information Systems: You mentioned you were the Lab Manager for the Immersive Simulation Program (ISP) at the National Human Genome Research Institute. First, what is the National Human Genome Research Institute and can you provide some insight on what your day to day looks like in this role?

Chris Fortney: The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) is a large research institute at NIH which is concerned with advancing human health through genomic research. NHGRI is a leader in human genetics, and supports research which contributes to understanding the structure and function of the human genome, especially as it relates to health and disease. Our lab is under the Social & Behavioral Research Branch, so our work focuses on behavioral outcomes and communication of genomics concepts. For example, I am developing an interactive website that will facilitate a telemedicine call between a physician and a simulated virtual patient who asks specific questions about their genetic risk for common complex diseases. This involves having the application which controls a virtual avatar developed, and collaborating with our research unit to determine the types of questions the avatar will ask, working on study design, participant recruitment, training our research assistants on the overall protocol, executing the study itself, and data collection and analysis. I wear a lot of different hats on a day to day basis, which touch on every step of the research process from conception, content generation, and execution, to publication.

Information Systems: What excites you most about working in the VR space?

Chris Fortney: What I love is how multidisciplinary I get to be working in the VR space. You’re an amateur game developer in one sense, but also a a project manager with complex requirements to understand, gather, and implement into a system which connects many pieces outside of just the VR headset. I think VR is also just cool and fun; I’ve been a PC gamer my entire life and grew up building computers and overclocking them to get Half-Life to run a little faster, so playing with the latest technology is really what drew me to VR to begin with.

Chris Fortney holding a gaming card

Information Systems: What innovations do you see happening in the field in the next 3 or 4 years?

Chris Fortney: We just saw Apple release their first headset into the market, and I think that the field will be getting more players entering it and more focus on developing applications that take advantage of the latest capabilities of the headsets. Entering a virtual world using the VR systems we have today provides a pretty rough approximation of true immersion. Sometimes, I think actually in spite of the bulky weight of the headset and the clunky controller interfaces, developers are able to suspend our disbelief entirely and really provide amazing experiences. I think the industry is generally focused on use outside of the home next. Most folks can’t afford the latest headset or aren’t interested in walking around with a heavy computer strapped to their face. But I also think that people don’t actually like looking down at their phone 500 times a day, we’d prefer if our computing device worked for us instead of us working to use it. As the headsets themselves become more advanced, becoming more invisible with higher resolutions and more natural feeling interfaces, the gap between uncanny and transformative shrinks. I expect that simulation will in general become more realistic and useful to the average person, and if the cost of the products are driven down and the ease of use of them is driven up, we will see using a headset as ubiquitous as a cell phone.

Information Systems: What advice would you give to a prospective student considering entering this field?

Chris Fortney: I think any computer scientist could give them much better advice than I could on the technical skills and approaches that you can take to be successful in the field. But what I have learned over the years collaborating with researchers and physicians who intersect with the field of VR, is that creativity is incredibly important. This is probably true in any field, but value your own creative process and nourish it as best you can; it’s your most important asset in your career.


Chris Fortney with his curly haired dog